Idul Fitri. Morning dawned bright and clear. The village stirred and the family was up as usual with the sunrise. The yard was swept clean, the house tidied, water was drawn from the well, a small cooking fire tended in the lean-to kitchen at the rear of the home, everyone bathed with masses of soap and deep splashes of cold water from the bak-mandi, and the kitchen table was spread with good things for breakfast. One by one, family members appeared, the women dressed in bright new sarongs, lacy kebaya and colourful silky headscarves, the men in checked sarongs, new pressed white shirts and black peci hats. The children, too, sported new clothes, my little boys decked out with smart new skull caps and new prayer mats to throw over the shoulder on the way to the mosque.
Breakfast was welcome after thirty days of fasting, no food or drink between the pre-dawn sahur meal and sunset. A large bowl of fresh steamed rice, little woven palm leaf packets of festive rice, sweet fried chicken, yellow curried chicken, fresh green vegetables, bowls of stewed beef of various kinds swimming in sweet, spiced coconut milk, fried fermented bean curd, delicious prawn kerupuk and emping crackers, still made from the melinjo that grow in the yard, hot black coffee and sweet mango and passion fruit juices. Most of what we ate was grown in the family’s fields or front yard and was processed and prepared by hand.
Breakfast over, we hurried to walk together the short distance along coconut lined lanes between village homes and rice fields to the local mosque. Long crisp shadows cut across the road, morning sunlight slanting through the trees. At this early hour, the sky was high and blue. Flocks of small birds chattered in the trees and chased insects across the intense green of the rice fields. Cicadas and grasshoppers pierced the calm with a high pitched chirruping whistle. Roosters called to one another across the village. The air was cool in the shade of fruiting mangos – before the day’s heat set in.
Along the way, greetings were exchanged with friends and acquaintances from the past. Snatches of commentary in English from my wife are for my benefit.
“This one was in my class in primary school.”
“That is my uncle’s grandson.”
“There’s the daughter of the old lady we met next door, remember? She’s married to the man who showed us the gamelan…”
At the mosque everyone from the surrounding villages gathered for the Eed prayers. On this feast day, the congregation spilled out across the street and into the fields. The entire community gathered, men in rows at the front, women clad from head to toe in white prayer shawls at the rear and children too young to join in playing in an adjacent yard.
There is a great comfort in the uniformity and communality of the Islamic prayers that is, perhaps, hard for the contemporary western mind to appreciate. For the ten minutes or so that it takes to complete the cycle of prayer, everyone is the same. In the brief recitations from the Qur’an and in the physical exercise of standing, bowing and kneeling, forehead touching the ground in submission, there is no individuality, no ego, no competition, no need to think, to analyse, to question. Just follow the pattern laid down by the Prophet fourteen centuries ago and followed by Muslims the world over today.
The prayers over, the congregation sat cross-legged on mats and listened to the sermon, or pretended to listen, dozing contentedly, minds wandering, those at the rear chatting quietly. My two small boys broke away from the group and headed off with their cousin looking for mischief. This they found in the adjacent corn fields, where dragonflies and caterpillars made excellent prey for young hunters in the morning light.
After around thirty minutes of sermon – the congregation would probably feel short-changed with anything less – the gathering broke up and the worshippers wandered home, much hand shaking, exchanging of warm smiles and greetings accompanying the process. After regrouping at the family home we moved on to the next event. In addition to the local mosque, each village maintains its own mushola, a kind of small mosque. Here, just a few steps away from the house, we gathered again in the more intimate village group to formally exchange festive greetings.
Following some prayers and short speeches in a mix of Javanese, Arabic and, for my benefit, Indonesian, on the meaning of Eed and the importance of maintaining cohesion and connection within the village, a large circular line formed and every man filed past clasping and shaking hands, muttering greetings as he passed. The circle continued until every hand had been shaken by every other. In the rear section of the mushola the women did the same thing. Some handshakes were firm and businesslike, hands roughened by daily toil in the rice fields, others gentle and respectful, some barely a touch. Some used two hands, others one, the hands fluttering up to the chest signifying the heart connection. Some bowed slightly and some supported the right forearm with the left hand, signifying respect. Some men were old, missing teeth, faces creased by the years, others young, wisps of beard and cheeky eyes. And every face was lit by a smile.
During the speeches a jar passed hand to hand around the circle in the mushola. Money was collected and when the jar reached the front its contents were emptied out and counted. The money goes to maintaining the mushola and its activities. Later, and throughout the day, every time we met a family member, money was passed discreetly and received in silence. There is no discomfort in this. Those that can afford to do so help out those who have less. Folded notes are exchanged in a handshake. This is just the way it is. It is the way things should be.
Like all village events from birth and marriage to death, the festival of Idul Fitri is about reaffirming relationships, connections and commitments within the family and the village. This is the heart of Lebaran and the heart of Javanese culture. And the religious framework which carries this activity adds form and focus, giving an emphasis on reaffirmation of shared belief, shared values, and placing it all in a broader perspective.
Back at the family home, whilst the children scampered about chasing the chickens and climbing the crumbling brick walls, the most important ritual of all took place. One by one, all the family members paid homage to their parents and in a formal but strikingly intense and personal way each asked for forgiveness for mistakes or offences committed over the previous year, and for blessings for the year to come. Seated on the open veranda, Father and Mother received their children’s submissions and offered forgiveness, each in turn.
Heads were bowed, and the aging parents’ hands clasped. Private speeches were delivered in quiet, respectful tones and high Javanese language. The emotion was palpable. This is a culture which values the calm and steady state, the suppression of emotion where the less said the better; the expression of love and forgiveness is usually embedded in context and action not words. In this setting, the intensity of the ritual was remarkable. Tears flowed, forgiveness was exchanged and hopes and prayers for the coming year were muttered. Bonds were renewed.
Having completed the ritual with parents, individuals moved on to their siblings and friends, exchanging the same expressions of forgiveness though with the greatest intensity reserved for parents and, one imagines, partners in private. A hush fell over the home after this, as if everyone was suddenly tired out from lack of sleep and the exertions, excitement and emotion of the morning. Somehow even the children fell quiet. I was left alone on the veranda. Alone to sit and reflect, to contemplate the meaning of it all.
The morning was still young, the sunlight clean and bright. Shadows played on the old brick wall across the lane. The air filtered through layers of deep green; high coconut palm fronds, a thick stand of dark bamboo next door, wide leaves and little shrubs that dotted the yard. There were no passing bikes, no crowds of passers-by, nothing to disturb the stillness. The world seemed to have fallen under a quiet spell. Unexpectedly, a light rain shower swept in and cleaned the dust off the old tiled roofs and the green broad leaves of papaya, melinjo, guava, banana and coconut palm fronds. Within moments the sun returned, sprinkling a constellation of bright jewels over the dripping leaves.
For a brief period – was it seconds or minutes, I now wonder – I was transported to another place. In the literal sense nothing had changed, nothing moved, I remained seated quietly on the veranda. But in a profound sense everything had changed. The world is no longer as it was. In some indefinable way I had been blessed with a glimpse of a brighter, more perfect reality. Everything was exactly as it should be, as if the universe had been planned for just that moment. Nothing was out of place. It was only for a moment, but there was no snake in that garden. No disquiet, no question of evil. The closest word I can find to describe the experience is bliss.
And that’s it. There are no words really to capture the experience. If it was an epiphany of sorts, an enlightenment, it did not come with the accoutrements of traditional religion. No beating of wings, no blinding lights, no chorus of angels, no voices. Just a quiet serenity, a tuning in, an acceptance, a sense of being at one with the world. And it left me somehow different. Richer. More complete. Perhaps more comfortable with who I am.
In the midst of the communal religious experience of Idul Fitri, this was a very private vision. And one with no obvious meaning. Unconnected in any clear sense but perhaps not unrelated. Was it a fantasy? A kind of hallucination brought on by sleep deprivation and a month of daytime fasting? Or some kind of wishful thinking?
Whatever it was or wasn’t, for me it was a powerful moment. And then the day resumed. A motorbike rattled past. The children’s voices returned along with the cackle of roosters. Birds called from high in the trees.
Shadows shrank, the heat rose and the sky grew hazy as the day grew older. A faint scent of combined village odours sat on the still air, kitchen smells mixed with those of the wet fields to suggest fertility, growth and decay. The village chickens fell silent again.
Copyright © Mark Heyward, 2011
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